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Where people fit into the equation

Posted February 20, 2019; updated August 23, 2019
By Abe Danaher, communications assistant

Through a three-year, almost $300,000 grant and a course she piloted last semester, Vanessa Kitzie is ensuring that her students — and the rest of the information science community  don’t forget about humans in the growing world of big data and technology.

Kitzie, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science, is combining her two interests  sociology and information science  to take an interdisciplinary approach in answering one of her field’s key research questions: What do people do with information in their everyday lives?

That question has brought her research down two different paths  one looking at social bots and the other examining public library service to LGBTQ+ communities.

In the years following the 2016 election, social bots have been a “hot topic,” Kitzie said. Computer scientists and people in information science devoted a lot of attention to determining the role that these bots played in the outcome of the election.

“That’s pretty much all you have seen in terms of bot research,” Kitzie says when discussing the 2016 election. “One thing we have done is look at bot research in other contexts.”

Alongside fellow SLIS faculty members Amir Karami and Ehsan Mohammadi, Kitzie has begun looking at bot activity after mass shooting events. To do so, she focused her research on bot activity before and after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. She not only looked at what information the bots were sharing, but sought to answer if they were influencing the humans who encountered their posts.

“One of the things we were looking at was what bot accounts were being retweeted a ton and what were they saying, because that’s obviously going to be what’s more influential,” Kitzie says.

She hopes this research provides libraries with a more nuanced understanding of what skill sets are required to be information literate in today’s world, particularly when automated sources of information such as bots and algorithms play an increasingly powerful role. 

In addition to this work, Kitzie has also launched a three-year study to examine the health information practices of LGBTQ+ libraries and, based on the findings, locate potential places for advocacy and intervention by public libraries.

In October 2018, she began phase one, which studies the health-related information practices of LGBTQ+ people in South Carolina. It’s still a work in progress, but Kitzie plans to use her findings to inform a community forum at Richland Library between LGBTQ+ leaders and public librarians. Her hope is to spark dialogue and foster a stronger relationship between libraries and the LGBTQ+ community  first in South Carolina, then on a national scale.

As Kitzie looks to inform libraries through her research about the people and technology within their communities, she is also challenging her students to consider the relationship between people and technology, too.

Last fall, she introduced the course “Social Informatics: Design, Uses, and Consequences of Technologies in Everyday Life” in UofSC’s Honors College with the goal of challenging her students’ preconceived ideas.

“A lot of times people say things like, ‘Twitter is making us shallow,’” she says. “Or like, ‘Facebook is making us lonely.’ Or, ‘Google is making us stupid.’ You hear those sorts of things.”

She taught her students to look past such deterministic narratives and instead look at the social and cultural influences that created the technology. She also pushed them to consider how technology has influenced humanity’s behaviors without entirely determining them.

In the process, Kitzie created a class that will be a mainstay in SLIS’s curriculum  it’s being offered as a special topics course this semester and will be listed as SLIS 415, an elective, in fall 2019.

“It was really after taking Dr. Kitzie’s class that I knew I wanted to be a part of SLIS,” says Jonah Rotholz, who changed his major from experimental psychology to information science after taking the Honors College class.

Rotholz says Kitzie made the class extremely relatable for him and encouraged him to apply what he was learning in the class to his interest in business sales. This led him to take away exactly what Kitzie had hoped her students would through his own lens of interest.

“When people think about computers and they think about technology, the first thing that comes to mind is building the chips, writing the software, all of that,” Rotholz says. “It’s really easy to overlook how important the human element is, but if you don’t consider the human element, your code can be great and your hardware can be great, but everyone will hate your product.” 

The ever-evolving relationship between people and technology is complicated. But Kitzie’s research is helping students, librarians and fellow researchers make sense of it so that they can better connect with the communities they serve.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.